Ziemann: The Eeyore in the room

Columnist Megan Ziemann uncovers the ugly side of endless positivity.

Megan Ziemann

The Memorial Union is crowded this weekday around lunchtime. It’s some dreary winter month in 2018 or 2019 and my roommates and I are chatting about internship offers. One of them is interested in working close to home. Another already has a job with the city’s Parks and Recreation department. They are cheerful, optimistic and laughing about their bright futures. 

I’m the Eeyore in the room. I have a couple of offers, but I’m concerned I’m not qualified. My voice is lower, my attitude is somber and all I can do is worry I’m not enough, I’ll never be enough, I’ll never amount to anything and this bachelor’s is for nothing.

I’m a pessimist and I own it. It’s not a good thing to be, and I need to make some changes.

But the other side isn’t all sunshine and roses, either. 

Toxic positivity, also known as toxic optimism, is the assumption that we must live our lives in a state of eternal, shallow happiness. It manifests when we encourage each other, often in empty ways.

You’ve probably heard all the popular examples.

“You’ll be fine!”

“There’s nothing to worry about!”

“It could be worse!”

“Just be optimistic!”

Having a positive mindset is important, especially during uncertain times like these. However, when all we focus on are the positives, it gets a lot more difficult to actually process what we’re feeling. Humans cannot force themselves to constantly feel happy.

I am impacted by toxic positivity every day. Because I have an invisible illness.

In 2014, I got really sad. It started with a tiny teenager problem that shouldn’t have smacked me hard with feelings, but at the time I was a 15-year-old sophomore in high school and everything smacked me hard with feelings, so my family and friends thought it was nothing special.

As the days turned into months and 2014 turned into 2015, the sadness turned into emptiness and I started to get really worked up over nothing. I would sweat, my hands would shake, my heart would quicken and my head would get foggy. I later learned “getting worked up over nothing” was a panic attack and I would have at least one a week. 

Panic attacks meant my inner feelings produced outward symptoms for the first time. I couldn’t hide it anymore.

It was time to get professional help.

In the spring of 2015, I was diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder and major depressive disorder. I was prescribed an antidepressant and to this day I start my mornings with a little white pill.

When someone tells me “You have so much to be happy about!” I feel like they aren’t really listening. Yes, I do have a lot to be happy about. I’m incredibly privileged and I need to remember that always.

But sometimes I just want to complain about my brain not working!

Because of the global pandemic, people with invisible and chronic illnesses aren’t the only ones feeling the toxicity. A lot of us just want to vent right now. We don’t want to hear the “we’re all in this together” corporate promise. We don’t want to be told we should be using our quarantine to better ourselves.

We want to feel bad for a bit.

Toxic positivity leaves the person opening up feeling invalidated and misheard. With continued exposure, they may develop selective attention with regard to happiness and only think about the good things in life, which leaves them without a safety net or “plan B.”

A way to mitigate the effects of toxic positivity is to evaluate your emotional intelligence (EI). I first learned about EI in my ethical management class (thanks, Dr. Watt). Emotional intelligence is the ability humans have to be self-aware, detect emotions and manage emotional cues. An important part of EI is using your emotions to facilitate your thinking, meaning your emotions should be an important but not overwhelming part of your thought process.

The next time you’re feeling like you need to get something off your chest, reflect on it a little. Are you looking for an answer, a discussion or a silent but supportive response? If you know what you’re expecting right off the bat, it’s not bad to let the person you’re speaking with know.

Full disclosure, my partner and I do this all the time. He likes to offer solutions to problems, which is fantastic when I’m looking for them. But sometimes I just like to complain.

And that’s OK.

To all the other Eeyores: we’re not perfect and we painfully know that. But life doesn’t have to be accompanied by a dark cloud. It’s OK to feel happy. It’s OK to feel sad. 

It’s OK to feel.